Mind Reading

Sunday, April 8, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Is It

We base many decisions every day not only on the belief that other people have minds, but on detailed beliefs about what is going on in those minds: what these other people believe, feel, hope, and fear. The basis of our ability to "read" the minds of others is a lively area of research in psychology and the philosophy of psychology. Ken and John discuss mind-reading with Shaun Nichols from the University of Arizona, author of Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretense, Self-awareness and Understanding Other Minds. This program was recorded in front of a live audience at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Listening Notes

It’s not just psychics that have the ability to read minds. We all read minds every day; every time we attribute mental activity to those around us we are ‘reading minds.’ We all have a deep, ingrained intuition that other people have minds, and that these minds are the inner causes of the behavior which we see. This behavior is not only the ‘product of a mind,’ but amazingly allows us a window into another mind, a way to discover facts about other minds.

Shaun Nichols joins the conversation to offer a new perspective on mind-reading. Ken wonders whether science can ever answer the famous philosophical ‘problem of other minds,’ the question of how we can ever know other minds exist? After all, in some fundamental way, other people’s minds are closed off from us. For all we know, they could be ‘zombies,’ empty machines which look and act identical to everyone we know, but simply have no mental lives. Shaun tells Ken that science has not, and, as far as he can tell, will not be able to provide an answer to the problem of other minds. But, Shaun adds, science does have some exciting news to share with philosophy about how mind-reading works, how we are so good at guessing and predicting others’ behavior.

Shaun tries to explain our mind-reading ability by internal processes that are not merely ‘putting ourselves in another’s shoes.’ Basically, beliefs and desires cause behavior, and we can deduce those beliefs and desires through a system of rules that our brain develops on how and when to attribute certain beliefs and desires. For instance, if you see a friend voraciously eating something you find gross, you do not put yourself in his shoes, but instead deduce that, since he is continuing to eat that disgusting thing without being truly hungry, he must believe that it tastes good.

As some guests (as well as Ken and John) point out, there are some apparent problems with this theory. After all, can’t we read the minds of our pets? We seem to know when Fido is in pain, but we don’t want to attribute beliefs to Fido, at least not ‘propositional beliefs,’ since Fido does not have sufficient semantic ability. Shaun responds that the kinds of mind-reading we do for our pets is very different from the mind-reading we do of each other. Pain and pleasure, the emotions we share with our pets, do not require full-on beliefs for explanation.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:00): Rina Palta talks to Kristy McGinnis, Professor of Education at Pacific University, about how those who struggle with autism have impaired ‘mind-reading’ ability, yet many of their other cognitive capacities can be completely normal. Autism helps teach us how important our ‘mind-reading’ ability is to our daily lives, and how difficult it can be to become intimate with people whose minds are ‘closed off’ to you.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:15): Ian Shoales wonders why we even need mind-reading anymore, since we all just share our thoughts over the internet or watch Hollywood movies where we are all brain-washed into the same thoughtless soup. Most of the time, would we even want to know others’ thoughts? Isn’t it true that we spend most of our mental lives planning the mind-numbingly repetitive activities that boringly constitute the vast majority of our waking existence.